Primary Documents - John Pershing's Despatch of 1 September 1919

General John Pershing Reproduced below is an extract from AEF Commander-in-Chief General John Pershing's official despatch dated 1 September 1919.  The extract summarised events from the AEF's inception through to the end of 1917.

In his report Pershing stressed the criticality of the Allied position on the Western Front following Russia's defeat (and the real possibility of Italian defeat shortly afterwards).  He noted that unless one million U.S. servicemen were despatched promptly to the Western Front there was a credible possibility that the Germans would hasten the transfer of their forces from the Eastern Front and breakthrough French and British forces in the West.

Pershing also reiterated his determination to preserve the independence of U.S. forces - not least, he recorded, because of what he regarded as the essentially defensive trench tactics employed by the French and British.  Pershing believed that only open warfare would win the war and consequently wished to ensure that U.S. troops were trained and deployed accordingly.

Official Report of U.S. AEF Commander-in-Chief General John Pershing, 1 September 1919

Period of Organization

I assumed the duties of this office on May 26, 1917, and, accompanied by a small staff, departed for Europe on board the S.S. Baltic, May 28th.  We arrived at London on June 9th and, after spending some days in consultation with the British authorities, reached Paris on June 13th.

Following the rather earnest appeals of the Allies for American troops, it was decided to send to France, at once, one complete division and nine newly organized regiments of Engineers.  The division was formed of regular regiments, necessary transfers of officers and men were made, and recruits were assigned to increase these units to the required strength.

The offer by the Navy Department of one regiment of Marines to be reorganized as Infantry was accepted by the Secretary of War, and it became temporarily a part of the First Division.

Prior to our entrance into the war, the regiments of our small army were very much scattered, and we had no organized units, even approximating a division, that could be sent overseas prepared to take the field.

To meet the new conditions of warfare an entirely new organization was adopted in which our Infantry divisions were to consist of 4 regiments of Infantry of about treble their original size, 3 regiments of Artillery, 14 machine-gun companies, 1 Engineer regiment, 1 Signal battalion, 1 troop of Cavalry, and other auxiliary units, making a total strength of about 28,000 men.

The relatively low strength of the German forces on the Western front led the Allies with much confidence to attempt a decision on this front; but the losses were very heavy and the effort signally failed.  The failure caused a serious reaction especially on French morale, both in the army and throughout the country, and attempts to carry out extensive or combined operations were indefinitely suspended.

In the five months ending June 30th, German submarines had accomplished the destruction of more than three and one-quarter million tons of Allied shipping.  During three years Germany had seen practically all her offensives except Verdun crowned with success.

Her battle lines were held on foreign soil and she had withstood every Allied attack since the Marne.  The German general staff could now foresee the complete elimination of Russia, the possibility of defeating Italy before the end of the year and, finally, the campaign of 1918 against the French and British on the Western front which might terminate the war.

It cannot be said that German hopes of final victory were extravagant, either as viewed at that time or as viewed in the light of history.  Financial problems of the Allies were difficult, supplies were becoming exhausted and their armies had suffered tremendous losses.

Discouragement existed not only among the civil population but throughout the armies as well.  Such was the Allied morale that, although their superiority on the Western front during the last half of 1916 and during 1917 amounted to 20 per cent, only local attacks could be undertaken and their effect proved wholly insufficient against the German defence.

Allied resources in manpower at home were low and there was little prospect of materially increasing their armed strength, even in the face of the probability of having practically the whole military strength of the Central Powers against them in the spring of 1918.

This was the state of affairs that existed when we entered the war.  While our action gave the Allies much encouragement, yet this was temporary, and a review of conditions made it apparent that America must make a supreme material effort as soon as possible.

After duly considering the tonnage possibilities I cabled the following to Washington on July 6, 1917: "Plans should contemplate sending over at least 1,000,000 men by next May."

Organisation Projects

A general organization project, covering as far as possible the personnel of all combat, staff, and administrative units, was forwarded to Washington on July 11th.

This was prepared by the Operations Section of my staff and adopted in joint conference with the War Department Committee then in France.  It embodied my conclusions on the military organization and effort required of America after a careful study of French and British experience.

In forwarding this project I stated: "It is evident that a force of about 1,000,000 is the smallest unit which in modern war will be a complete, well-balanced, and independent fighting organization.  However, it must be equally clear that the adoption of this size force as a basis of study should not be construed as representing the maximum force which should be sent to or which will be needed in France.  It is taken as the force which may be expected to reach France in time for an offensive in 1918, and as a unit and basis of organization.  Plans for the future should be based, especially in reference to the manufacture of artillery, aviation, and other material, on three times this force, i.e., at least 3,000,000 men."

The original project for organized combat units remained our guide until the end.

While this general organization project provided certain Services of Supply troops, which were an integral part of the larger combat units, it did not include the great body of troops and services required to maintain an army overseas.

To disembark 2,000,000 men, move them to their training areas, shelter them, handle and store the quantities of supplies and equipment they required called for an extraordinary and immediate effort in construction.  To provide the organization for this purpose, a project for engineer services of the rear, including railways, was cabled to Washington August 5, 1917, followed on September 18, 1917, by a complete service of the rear project, which listed item by item the troops considered necessary for the Services of Supply.

American Front and Line of Communications

Before developing plans for a line of communications it was necessary to decide upon the probable sector of the front for the eventual employment of a distinctive American force.

Our mission was offensive and it was essential to make plans for striking the enemy where a definite military decision could be gained.  While the Allied armies had endeavoured to maintain the offensive, the British, in order to guard the Channel ports, were committed to operations in Flanders and the French to the portion of the front protecting Paris.  Both lacked troops to operate elsewhere on a large scale.

To the east the great fortified district east of Verdun and around Metz menaced central France, protected the most exposed portion of the German line of communications, that between Metz and Sedan, and covered the Briey iron region, from which the enemy obtained the greater part of the iron required for munitions and material.

The coal fields east of Metz were also covered by these same defences.  A deep advance east of Metz, or the capture of the Briey region, by threatening the invasion of rich German territory in the Moselle Valley and the Saar Basin, thus curtailing her supply of coal or iron, would have a decisive effect in forcing a withdrawal of German troops from northern France.

The military and economic situation of the enemy, therefore, indicated Lorraine as the field promising the most fruitful results for the employment of our armies.

The complexity of trench life had enormously increased the tonnage of supplies required by troops.  Not only was it a question of providing food but enormous quantities of munitions and material were needed.  Upon the railroads of France fell the burden of meeting the heavy demands of the three and one-half million Allied combatants then engaged.

The British were crowding the Channel ports and the French were exploiting the manufacturing centre of Paris, so that the railroads of northern France were already much overtaxed.  Even though the Channel ports might be used to a limited extent for shipments through England, the rail-roads leading eastward would have to cross British and French zones of operation, thus making the introduction of a line of communications based on ports and railways in that region quite impracticable.

If the American Army was to have an independent and flexible system it could not use the lines behind the British-Belgium front nor those in rear of the French front covering Paris.

The problem confronting the American Expeditionary Forces was then to superimpose its rail communications on those of France where there would be the least possible disturbance to the arteries of supply of the two great Allied armies already in the field.

This would require the utmost use of those lines of the existing French railroad system that could bear an added burden.  Double-track railroad lines from the ports of the Loire and the Gironde Rivers unite at Bourges, running thence via Nevers, Dijon, and Neufchateau, with lines radiating therefrom toward the right wing of the Allied front.

It was estimated that these with the collateral lines available, after considerable improvement, could handle an additional 50,000 tons per day, required for an army of 2,000,000 men.  The lines selected, therefore, were those leading from the comparatively unused south-Atlantic ports of France to the northeast where it was believed the American Armies could be employed to the best advantage.

In the location of our main depots of supply, while it was important that they should be easily accessible, yet they must also be at a safe distance, as we were to meet an aggressive enemy capable of taking the offensive in any one of several directions.

The area embracing Tours, Orleans, Montargis, Nevers, and Chateauroux was chosen, as it was centrally located with regard to all points on the arc of the Western front.

The ports of St. Nazaire, La Pallice, and Bassens were designated for permanent use, while Nantes, Bordeaux, and Pauillac were for emergency use.  Several smaller ports, such as St. Malo, Sables-d'Olonne, and Bayonne, were available chiefly for the importation of coal from England.  From time to time, certain trans-Atlantic ships were sent to Le Havre and Cherbourg.

In anticipation of a large increase in the amount of tonnage that might be required later, arrangements were made during the German offensive of 1918 to utilize the ports of Marseilles and Toulon as well as other smaller ports on the Mediterranean.

For all practical purposes the American Expeditionary Forces were based on the American Continent.  Three thousand miles of ocean to cross with the growing submarine menace confronting us, the quantity of ship tonnage that would be available then unknown and a line of communications by land 400 miles long from French ports to our probable front presented difficulties that seemed almost insurmountable as compared with those of our Allies.


Soon after our arrival in Europe careful study was made of the methods followed by our Allies in training combat troops.  Both the French and British maintained continuously a great system of schools and training centres, which provided for both theoretical and practical instruction of inexperienced officers and non-commissioned officers.

These centres were required not only to train new troops, but to prepare officers and soldiers for advancement by giving them a short course in the duties of their new grades.  These school systems made it possible to spread rapidly a knowledge of the latest methods developed by experience and at the same time counteract false notions.

A similar scheme was adopted in August, 1917, for our Armies in which the importance of teaching throughout our forces a sound fighting doctrine of our own was emphasized.  It provided for troop training in all units up to include divisions.

Corps centres of instruction for non-commissioned officers and unit commanders of all arms were established.  These centres also provided special training for the instructors needed at corps schools.  Base training centres for replacement troops and special classes of soldiers, such as cooks and mechanics, were designated.

The army and corps schools were retained under the direct supervision of the Training Section, General Staff.  The schools mentioned graduated 21,330 non-commissioned officers and 13,916 officers.

Particular care was taken to search the ranks for the most promising soldiers, in order to develop leaders for the command of platoons and companies.  There were graduated from these candidate schools in France 10,976 soldiers.

Every advantage was taken of the experience of our Allies in training officers.  It was early recommended to the War Department that French and British officers be asked for to assist in the instruction of troops in the United States.

Pending the organization and development of our own schools, a large number of our officers were sent to centres of instruction of the Allied armies.

The long period of trench warfare had so impressed itself upon the French and British that they had almost entirely dispensed with training for open warfare.  It was to avoid this result in our Army and to encourage the offensive spirit that the following was published in October, 1917:

(a) The above methods to be employed must remain or become distinctly our own.

(b) All instruction must contemplate the assumption of a vigorous offensive.  This purpose will be emphasized in every phase of training until it becomes a settled habit of thought.

(c) The general principles governing combat remain unchanged in their essence.  This war has developed special features which involve special phases of training, but the fundamental ideas enunciated in our Drill Regulations, Small Arms Firing Manual, Field Service Regulations, and other service manuals remain the guide for both officers and soldiers and constitute the standard by which their efficiency is to be measured, except as modified in detail by instructions from these headquarters.

(d) The rifle and the bayonet are the principal weapons of the infantry soldier.  He will be trained to a high degree of skill as a marksman, both on the target range and in field firing.  An aggressive spirit must be developed until the soldier feels himself, as a bayonet fighter, invincible in battle.

(e) All officers and soldiers should realize that at no time in our history has discipline been so important; therefore, discipline of the highest order must be exacted at all times.  The standards for the American Army will be those of West Point.  The rigid attention, upright bearing, attention to detail, uncomplaining obedience to instructions required of the cadet will be required of every officer and soldier of our armies in France.

The system of training profoundly influenced the combat efficiency of our troops by its determined insistence upon an offensive doctrine and upon training in warfare of movement.

Summer of 1917 to Spring of 1918

In order to hinder the enemy's conquest of Russia and, if possible, prevent a German attack on Italy, or in the near east, the Allies sought to maintain the offensive on the Western front as far as their diminished strength and morale would permit.

On June 7, 1917, the British took Messines, while a succession of operations known as the Third Battle of Ypres began on July 31st and terminated with the capture of the Passchendaele Ridge, November 6th-10th.  The British attack at Cambrai is of special interest, since it was here that American troops (Eleventh Engineers) first participated in active fighting.

The French successfully attacked on a limited front near Verdun, capturing Mort Homme on August 20th and advancing their lines to La Forge Brook.  In another offensive, begun on October 23rd, they gained considerable ground on Chemin des Dames Ridge.

These French attacks were characterized by most careful preparation to insure success in order to improve the morale of their troops.

Notwithstanding these Allied attacks on the Western front, the immense gains by the German armies in the east, culminating at Riga on September 3rd, precipitated the collapse of Russia.  The following month, the Austrians with German assistance surprised the Italians and broke through the lines at Caporetto, driving the Italian armies back to the Piave River, inflicting a loss of 300,000 men, 600,000 rifles, 3,000 guns, and enormous stores.

This serious crisis compelled the withdrawal of 10 French and British divisions from the Western front to Italy.  The German situation on all other theatres was so favourable that as early as November they began the movement of divisions toward the Western front.

A review of the situation showed that with Russia out of the war the Central Powers would be able to release a large number of divisions for service elsewhere, and that during the spring and summer of 1918, without interfering with the status quo at Salonika, they could concentrate on the Western front a force much stronger than that of the Allies.

In view of this, it was represented to the War Department in December as of the utmost importance that the Allied preparations be expedited.

On December 31, 1917, there were 176,665 American troops in France and but one division had appeared on the front.  Disappointment at the delay of the American effort soon began to develop.

French and British authorities suggested the more rapid entry of our troops into the line and urged the amalgamation of our troops with their own, even insisting upon the curtailment of training to conform to the strict minimum of trench requirements they considered necessary.

My conclusion was that, although the morale of the German people and of the armies was better than it had been for two years, only an untoward combination of circumstances could give the enemy a decisive victory before American support as recommended could be made effective, provided the Allies secured unity of action.

However, a situation might arise which would necessitate the temporary use of all American troops in the units of our Allies for the defensive, but nothing in the situation justified the relinquishment of our firm purpose to form our own Army under our own flag.

While the Germans were practicing for open warfare and concentrating their most aggressive personnel in shock divisions, the training of the Allies was still limited to trench warfare.  As our troops were being trained for open warfare, there was every reason why we could not allow them to be scattered among our Allies, even by divisions, much less as replacements, except by pressure of sheer necessity.

Any sort of permanent amalgamation would irrevocably commit America's fortunes to the hands of the Allies.  Moreover, it was obvious that the lack of homogeneity would render these mixed divisions difficult to manoeuvre and almost certain to break up under stress of defeat, with the consequent mutual recrimination.

Again, there was no doubt that the realization by the German people that independent American divisions, corps, or armies were in the field with determined purpose would be a severe blow to German morale and prestige.  It was also certain that an early appearance of the larger American units on the front would be most beneficial to the morale of the Allies themselves.

Accordingly, the First Division, on January 19, 1918, took over a sector north of Toul; the Twenty-sixth Division went to the Soissons front early in February; the Forty-second Division entered the line near Luneville, February 21st, and the Second Division near Verdun, March 18th.

Meanwhile, the First Army Corps Headquarters, Maj. Gen. Hunter Liggett, commanding, was organized at Neufchateau on January 10th, and the plan to create an independent American sector on the Lorraine front was taking shape.

This was the situation when the great German offensive was launched in 1918.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A 'Tracer' was a phosphorescent machine-gun bullet which glowed in flight, indicating course as an aid to artillery.

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